Editor’s note: To celebrate David E. Petzal’s 50th birthday at F&S, we asked staff and contributors to choose and share their favorite Petzal story (not an easy task – there are many good ones). Today’s selection, “My Life on the Edge” (April-May 2018), was made by T. Edward Nickens.
Dave and I have at least two things in common: the love for a cleverly crafted phrase and the lust for knives. In this short essay, he brings them all. Who else but DEP would open a story on knives with a hint to J. Alfred Prufrock? Or describe himself shapeless as he looks like “200 pounds of chewed bubble gum”. In his writing, Petzal swings from the erudite towards just outside the front gate. He writes with a keen authority. He does not pull fists. In fact, he likes to slap contenders and positivists. More than anyone else, he has kept it Field & Stream honest family. He is the last, the best of the best. -T. Edward Nickens
J. Alfred Prufrock, the protagonist of a famous poem, measured his life with coffee spoons. I have measured mine with knives. In the more than 60 years I have laughed outside and in the nearly 60 years I have collected knives, hundreds have passed through my hands and they have served as a kind of calendar. Here are some of them.
April 1952: Kiddie Ka-Bar
When I was 10, I was sent to summer camp in the Maine deserts. Part of the camp program was to take us out into the wilderness with inadequate equipment and to travel by canoe and on foot. We slept in the rain without tents. We cooked over wood fireplaces and realized that wherever I parked myself, there would be smoke. Eggs flooded us at night. Mosquitoes eat us in the evenings. We saw an apple drinking in the shallows. We saw a canoe that had collided with a side rock on the threshold and split in two. Our chief advisor was a flying fisherman. He tossed with his bamboo rod in the morning and caught trout for breakfast. We would tap the intestines, insert bacon into the body cavities, wrap them in foil, and place them on charcoal. I thought it was all wonderful. I still do. A few months before I left for Great North Woods, my parents bought me a Ka-Bar holster. I already had a Boy Scout folding knife, but I pointed out loudly that it was uneven with the desert and did they want their baby to die from the lack of blade length? So they surrendered and bought me Ka-Bar. It has a follow-up blade of just under 4 inches and a leather washer handle that is so small it can only hold three fingers today. It appears to have been owned by a 10-year-old.
I do not remember cutting anything with it, including myself, but I must have used it a lot. Miraculously, I still have it all these years later. And if any other 10-year-old inherits it, Kiddie Ka-Bar will serve him or her just like me.
October 1985: The Yankee Gut Hook
I met George Herron in 1976 because I was a perverted collector at the time, and here was this guy in South Carolina who was making knives that were not only extremely practical, but also excellently patterned. They were simple, but showed a level of skill that was nothing short of sublime.
In 1985, he invited me to come to South Carolina.
Thus I became acquainted with deer hunting in the swamps and fields of Palmetto State. Everything is made from the bases of trees. You do a three-hour stretch from dark before dawn until morning, and then another three hours from late afternoon until dark. I learned that the South Carolina deer materializes from the thin air. You can see part of the bean field, and there is nothing but beans, and you close your eyes and when you open your eyes after a fraction of a second, a white tail is lit down.
After such a hunt, it took me a while before I got back to Yankee Land and George decided he was going to teach me how to make a knife. He was famous for that. He instructed at least half a dozen men who continued to be professionals, and his work was so influential that it is now known as the knife-making school in South Carolina.
“You, Yankee, come to the store.” In the 25 years we have known each other, he never called me by name. It was always “You, Yankee.” I would catch him looking at me strangely, as if he were waiting for me to put on a blue uniform and light a plantation.
George once said, “I can make my hands do what my mind sees,” which is an eloquent way of saying it, but it does not fully articulate the case. Knife makers like him have a skill in their fingers that can not be learned or taught. Theirs is a touch that is denied to ordinary mortals.
I have no touch at all.
I said so. Like most people with an abundance of talent, he would not believe I could be as hopeless as I said, but he tried. Instead of cutting me a good steel plate for making the knife, he took a piece of tool steel and a weird piece of Osage orange wood and made me start making a gut hook, which is much simpler than a knife.
As work progressed, he could not hide his despair. He had never dreamed that anyone could be as unloved as I was. Finally, he removed the bowel hook and finished it himself. The result is a bit on the raw side, but by no means bad, and that for the fact that it’s 98 percent George Herron and 2 percent Yankee.
November 1991: The Knife of the Norm
In 1971, I met Norm Strung, who lived near Bozeman, Mont. He was as close to Complete Outdoorsman as I was. There was very little he could not do, or had not done, with a rod and a gun. He and his wife, Sil, pioneered. Everything they ate they hunted, caught or raised. Their house was heated with wood that Norma cut in the fall. When Sil wanted a new wood stove, they found a magnificent and ancient one that had been discarded and restored it.
When I showed up to hunt deer with him in 1971, I was green as grass and in the worst physical shape of my life. Norm taught me the Western Code, and that you do not hunt Montana deer like you do Adirondack white tail, and that if I were to hunt Montana deer, I better not look like 200 pounds of chewed bubble gum.
So I lost 30 pounds and came back the next year, and each of us killed a bull and hunted together for another 20 years.
In 1974, WD Randall, the late Florida knife maker who has his craft as God for organized religion, gave Norm a knife. It was the Bradford Angier model, named after a prominent man who designed it. It has a 5 inch steel tool blade with the Norm name engraved on it, a deer handle and a brass handle.
Norma used it and misused it for everything. He hit her through the pelvis of a deer. When holding it, he tied his rope to pull the prey over the handle, which stretched the sheath in an unnatural way. Within a few years, knives and holsters looked like hell.
In 1991, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and on a beautiful autumn day, he managed to walk on his favorite trout lie and shot himself to death, shortly after his 50th birthday.
I went out to do my homage a little later and asked Cili if I could have something of Norm to remember. She gave me Randall. I cleaned the blade, sharpened it, and even made a new sheath. I fully intended to use it, but to this day I am unable to.
In fact, there are times when I can hardly wait to see it.
July 2002: The Missing and the Found
I have sold all kinds of knives for all sorts of idiotic reasons, then I have regretted almost all the sales and to this day, I go through the posts of custom knife dealers in the desperate hope that I will see at least one from old knives again and buy again.
But only one of these has come back to me. This is a knife made by Ted Dowell, a college math professor who worked in Oregon (I forgave the math part), a genius machinist, and an imaginative artist in steel. He was one of the greatest in the renaissance of custom knives.
I bought this particular knife in 1971 simply because it had a fairly large handle that fit me. The blade is thin and made of a steel called F-8. No one uses the F-8 anymore (it’s not even in any of the blade-steel reference graphs) because, while maintaining an edge forever, it is almost impossible to sharpen.
In the fall of 1972, when I went on my second deer hunt with Norm Strung, I had this knife in my belt. We started hunting on a friend’s farm in eastern Montana, looking for deer and antelope. The farmer and I did not hit him.
Things came to a head between us when one of his hunters shot a mule deer and the rancher found himself without a knife. He turned to me. I had seen the way he used the tools and said, “Look for another one.” This was not just beyond his comprehension – as he was one of those people for whom the knife is a screwdriver is a hammer – but a clear violation of the Western Code, which among other things says that if one needs a tool, you give it to him.
Someone else produced a pocket knife, and the deer was removed, and I shot a deer and an antelope, and then we headed west towards the mountains and the deer. This was the hunt in which Norm and I each shot a bull, towards evening, on one of the bitterest days I can remember.
About halfway to get rid of elk no. 1, Norm lost his knife in the snow and without hesitation lent it to Dowell.
Filled with triumph, I went home and sold the knife to Abercrombie & Fitch for money to put in a new gun. I realized, shortly after, that I had made a terrible mistake. But the knife was gone.
Now we walk at a speed of 30 years or more in a town called Greenwich, Conn. Greenwich is like Beverly Hills, but with a lot more money, and in it there is a store that sells extremely expensive sporting goods, including hunting knives. And there, in the window, was my Dowell.
I let out a bounce like a deer that had just hatched, ran inside and got the serial number, which is 71-43-F, and called Betty Dowell. Yes, it was a knife that was sold to me in 1971. I bought the multiple of what I sold it for.
I do not know where it was in the three decades we were separated from each other, but all I have to do is hold it in my hand and turn into an Arctic evening at 7000 feet which was probably my most triumphant. in 60 years of hunting.
Someone else will own this knife when it’s not me, but it’s not because I sold it to him.